30 September 2013

A Non-statistical Argument for "Stat Squish"

So I was running around on the Timeless Isle and I was once again struck by what remains for me the primary reason why World of Warcraft needs a "stat squish."  Now this is an issue that Blizzard has "danced around" for several years now.  There were rumblings about it before Cataclysm launched, but it took a backseat to the old-world revamp and other features.  There were more rumblings about it before Mists of Pandaria, but again Blizzard decided not to pull the trigger, more than likely because of the massive overhaul to the talent system that came with that expansion.  Now as we near BlizzCon and the (hopefully) inevitable unveiling of the next expansion, the rumblings have begun again.  This time Ghostcrawler is all but promising the "squish" saying that WoW's combat engine is reaching its limits in terms of the current gear inflation and associated statistics.  It is at the point where either a total rewrite of the combat code will be required, or a "stat squish." 

While there are arguments against such a "squish," and such a thing will definitely have to be applied carefully, I am fully in favor of it, and in fact even before the next expansion's theme is even announced, it is already a factor in my decision to continue playing the game.  The "numbers" associated with WoW's combat are simply becoming ridiculous.  And I know, our inner epeen absolutely loves those crazy million damage crits we can get with some bizarre combination of buffs or specific boss mechanics, but for me it is passing the point of enjoyable and just becoming silly.  The main reason really has little to do with the numbers themselves, but more about how I interact with the game world itself.  As a long time player, as someone who raided Molten Core when it was "cutting edge" content, the fact that I am now butchering sea turtles with MORE hit points than the manifestation of Ragnaros had........... "breaks" the game world for me.

Now don't misunderstand, I fully realize the need for game mechanics to trump things like lore, continuity, and internal consistency.  I know that intuitively, the game is not trying to tell me that a sea turtle is more powerful than a fire god.  But at the same time, that is how it feels.  And if you've been reading my posts for very long, you know that "feel" is something that is very important to me.  A game just has to "feel" right in order for me to get the most enjoyment out of it.  In almost every way, WoW nails this "feeling" for me.  But this is one of the few ways it falls short.  The rampant gear inflation that has taken place since the later stages of Wrath of the Lich King and continuing to the present has turned the game into an avalanche of exponentially increasing numbers without any increase in satisfaction.  It is a system driven purely BY the numbers for the sake of the numbers.  And again, I understand that is a consequence of a "gear treadmill" type of game that WoW is, but even that can be "tamed" to a degree, and that is what the "stat squish" will do.

I won't feel any less powerful when my attacks hit for 1000 damage as opposed to 100,000 damage.  The size of the numbers don't really mean anything to me.  But the game world itself will "feel" a little more consistent to me.  Items won't have thousands of stat points.  Monsters won't have millions of hit points.  And to me, that is all worthwhile.  I know there are a lot of people who disagree with me and have become accustomed to the massive stat values and huge damage numbers.  I know that for many of those people a "stat squish" is going to feel like a "nerf."  And in their defense, if Blizzard does not apply the "squish" properly, it certainly could turn out to be a nerf.  But considering this is something Blizzard has been studying internally for several years now, I am fairly confident that when the time comes to apply it, it will be done in such a way as to not actually change the relative power curve, just the numbers behind that curve.  I also trust Blizzard to know that if they do it wrong it will piss off a lot of people, and they need the WoW "cash cow" to continue for at least a couple more years.  It is definitely in their best interest to get it right the first time.

So regardless of what new frontier we go trekking off to in the next expansion, so long as Blizzard follows through this time and does the "stat squish" as planned, I'll be along for the ride.  I really think it will be a good thing for the game in the long term, and even those who are uncomfortable about it at first will probably "come around" when they realize that it will actually simplify things to a degree.  And then Rag can go back to being more powerful than a sea turtle....

23 September 2013

More Playing = Less Writing

I find it somewhat ironic (and frustrating) that the more time I spend playing games, the less time I have to write about them, but there are more things I want to say.  It shouldn't be a surprise though.  There are only so many hours in the day (especially the kind of "free" hours that permit such activities) so you just have to do the best with what you have.  Lately I've been spending most of my time back in World of Warcraft.  I haven't been doing much with Hearthstone because I've pretty much discovered everything I "need" to know about it at this point.  It's quick, it's fun, it's casual, and I'll be pitching a few dimes at it here and there.  But with a full wipe still on the horizon, I really don't feel any need to continue to play it at this point, knowing that everything will be reset.  It just doesn't feel like an effective use of my time to "sink" more into it right now.  And as we just talked about, time is certainly of the essence these days.  So I thought I would share some observations I've had about WoW and the 5.4 patch.  There are spoilers below if you're one of the two or three people that is still trying to avoid discovering who the new Warchief of the Horde is until you finish Siege of Orgrimmar for yourself... so fair warning.

A Timeless Experiment

First off, the Timeless Isle.  It does a couple things that are necessary, albeit in a rather clumsy fashion.  The first is that it feels like a "test" on Blizzard's part in terms of attempting to implement more "dynamic" open-world content.  Now how we define "dynamic" is open to interpretation as many MMO's have their own spin on the term.  But regardless, Timeless Isle is Blizzard's first real attempt at designing a zone with very few directed activities or quests and a much more "open" event structure.  The biggest problem is that it is just too small of an implementation.  The Isle is very small, and the events are too few.  Granted part of the problem is that it is so new and there are so many players involved, that the time scale of events is probably not exactly what Blizzard had in mind.  But the fact remains that it is very difficult to participate in a lot of events if you aren't actively "camping" them and waiting for them to begin.  If you are off on your own somewhere and waiting for a notification, odds are the event will be long over before you can arrive, even given the Isle's small geographical space.  So I'll give Blizzard a "thumbs up" for trying, and maybe we'll see more of this type of activity in the next expansion, but for now it is really too small of an experiment to be effective.

The other thing the Isle does is assist in very rapid gear progression for alt characters (or in my case, inactive mains).  Of course this always brings up the inevitable debate about the effort required to obtain items, "dumbing down" the game, etc.  But I'm going to leave that issue aside because quite frankly, it isn't really relevant to WoW (or any other themepark style MMO).  The fact is if you are going to design "rides" for your guests, you have to give them a way to access them.  WoW has decided to follow a model where significant story events and other pieces of content are only accessible through raids.  Well if that is the case, things like "free epics" on the Timeless Isle (or LFR itself for that matter) become a necessity.  We can debate whether or not that overall design decision is a good one or not, but for better or worse that was the decision that was made, so we get things like Timeless Isle. 

The problem I have with this aspect of the Isle is there is no real way to take random chance out of the equation, even at higher cost.  My shaman has enough timeless belts and boots to open her own accessory boutique, but can't find a set of spaulders.  My death knight has enough timeless pants and shirts to open his own Hot Topic, but can't find a set of gloves.  Now for 7500 coins you can buy a timeless token of a specific armor type....... but totally random slot.  Essentially there is no way to get a specific token for both an armor type and slot.  I know we are already getting a lot of stuff basically for "free" here, but I really think Blizzard should have included a way to obtain specific tokens, even at a much higher cost.  I'd be more inclined to "grind" more coins if I knew that, for example, I could buy a timeless plate glove for 20k.  There should always be a way to reduce the "random" nature of things, even at extreme cost.  It gives the player a bit more sense of control, and a feeling that "eventually" they can earn what they want.

Too Obvious?

The other significant part of 5.4 I wanted to talk about is the leadership of the Horde.  I really hope they have something more in the works here, because passing the title to Vol'jin just feels lazy to me.  Sometimes the obvious choice is the good one, and sometimes it's not.  Right now this feels like a "not" situation to me.  It feels like they just took the quick and easy way out and they really don't have a sense of direction for the Horde right now.  Of course I could be totally wrong and they already have a plan in place to make the transition to Vol'jin a more interesting event.  And if that is the case, then the decision makes more sense.  But right now it just feels like "Oh snap, we gotta do something.  Umm... here, Vol'jin.  You lead for a while until we figure things out." 

One way this might make more sense is if Blizzard intends to "de-escalate" the Horde/Alliance conflict for a while in favor of a new storyline in the next expansion.  Varian seems willing to "walk away" at this point with Garrosh being dealt with, and Vol'jin is certainly in no position to lead the Horde on any offensive campaigns at this juncture.  But the problem with this is that Blizzard has clearly sown the seeds of dissent within each of the factions.  Sylvanas and the Forsaken are becoming stronger and more aggressive, and her position is actually strengthened further by the removal of Garrosh.  She probably controls the strongest military faction in the Horde right now with the Orcs and the Kor'kron decimated.  And on the Alliance side of the equation, Jaina and the Kirin Tor have no love for the Horde whatsoever.  She already pushed Varian to continue the campaign after the defeat of Garrosh.  Why would she all the sudden be content with a new peace?  These are issues Blizzard will have to resolve in the interim between now and the next expansion if that expansion is going to open a new storyline and leave the Horde/Alliance tensions behind.

In terms of what that expansion will be, we will almost certainly find out at BlizzCon in a couple months.  The defeat of Garrosh already brings about the "end" of the Mists of Pandaria storyline, at least insofar as Blizzard has revealed it.  If you think back to Burning Crusade, remember that the whole final patch with the Sunwell raid and the Isle of Quel'danas was basically an "Oops, the next expansion isn't ready yet.  Here, play with this."  With Mists ending so abruptly, and no real time frame on the next expansion available, we may see a similar scenario play out here.  This actually could work out nicely as a way to "tie up" things with Sylvanas and Jaina as noted above... or it could do what the Sunwell did in BC and completely invalidate most of that expansion's storyline.  We shall see.

09 September 2013

Warcraft Casting Stage: Warchief Auditions

With patch 5.4 and the Siege of Orgrimmar on the horizon, the popular past time amongst World of Warcraft bloggers with an interest in lore has been to speculate about who will replace the soon to be killed Garrosh Hellscream as the leader of the Horde.  The usual suspects include all of the other faction leaders and there are good points to be made for and against each.  Vol'jin seems to be the most popular choice although it is far from a consensus pick.  Arguments have all been made for Sylvannas, Lor'themar, and even Baine Bloodhoof.  I haven't seen anyone suggest Gallywix yet, but that would certainly be amusing.  Needless to say there is quite a lot of interest among players in terms of who will be the next Warchief.  So with that in mind I thought I would indulge in a little speculation of my own and throw out my pick.  (Disclaimer:  As I basically "sat out" Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria to a degree, it is entirely possible I overlooked something in the recent lore that totally invalidates this pick.  I did search through WoWWiki and other sources to see if I missed anything.  So... this might all be meaningless.  If so, please let me know in the comments what I overlooked.

The Usual Suspect

So my pick is really something of a "dark horse," but it comes down to some well-reasoned logic in my mind.  First, I think the new Warchief has to be an Orc.  Regardless of Garrosh's misdeeds and the large number of Orcs who followed him, the Orcs remain the largest and most powerful military force within the Horde overall.  And again regardless of Garrosh's actions, I do not see the remainder of the Orcs agreeing to follow a non-Orc Warchief, even if it were a respected veteran like Vol'jin.  And I certainly cannot see them following a corpse (Sylvannas) or an elf (Lor'themar) or a child (Baine).  So that pretty much disqualifies all the other racial faction leaders within the Horde.  If the new Warchief has to be an Orc, then of course the first place to turn would be to a former Warchief, the shaman Thrall.

Right off the bat, I don't think Thrall would accept the position even if it were offered to him.  It doesn't seem to fit where his character is right now.  Yes he did attempt to set things right on his own and correct his mistake by confronting Garrosh, but I don't see him returning to the primary leadership position within the Horde.  I think he is more focused on the shamanistic aspects of his character right now (not to mention his child).  Now if the new Warchief wanted him as an adviser of sorts, I could certainly see Thrall agreeing to give his wisdom and support in that fashion, but a return to the Warchief's throne just doesn't seem to fit with where Thrall's character is right now.  In addition to that, he may view his initial decision to put Garrosh in charge as "proof" that he is no longer suitable to lead the Horde as a whole.  If he could make such a bad decision, then he should not be the leader.  So if Thrall doesn't want the job and all the other Horde faction leaders are unsuitable for various reasons, who does that leave?

The Man for the Job

Varok Saurfang is an almost perfect choice in my mind.  I don't think there is an Orc left alive that has "been there, done that, got the t-shirt" more than Saurfang.  He was with Grom Hellscream and drank the blood of Mannoroth.  He razed the cities of the Draenei.  He marched through the Dark Portal.  He fought at Blackrock Mountain.  He suffered in the internment camps.  He helped Thrall assemble the new Horde.  He led the assault against Ahn'Qiraj.  He fought in Northrend.  He carried the corpse of his son from the ramparts of Icecrown Citadel.  You name it, he's done it.  He has seen the depths that the Orcs can sink to.  He has seen the heights they can ascend to.  No other Orc that I can think of has the depth of experience, wisdom, and tenacity of Saurfang.  Not only would he command the respect of the Orcs themselves, but he has the experience and battlefield clout to command the respect of the other factions within the Horde itself.  I can't think of many others right now that would stand toe-to-toe with Sylvannas and try to keep her in her place.

Would Saurfang take the job?  That's somewhat unclear.  As near as I can tell, Saurfang has basically "sat things out" since the conclusion of the Northrend campaign.  I haven't seen any major references to him or any activities on his part in either Cataclysm or Mists of Pandaria.  While I cannot imagine that he would have supported Garrosh in any way, I think this can be interpreted as Varok simply isolating himself in Northrend and mourning his son's death.  Now again as I noted in my disclaimer it is entirely possible I overlooked something here and Saurfang has had some role in what has happened since the death of the Lich King.  But since I couldn't find anything to that effect, my whole argument basically rests on the assumption that he has kept to himself in Northrend while events in Pandaria have played themselves out.  I think his sense of honor and responsibility would carry the day and if he were approached with the offer of leadership, he would accept it in an effort to serve the Orcish people.

One of the "myths" about WoW these days is that it has become a "lobby game" where one just queues up for various activities and never really ventures outside the major cities, both while leveling and at the level cap.  This is something I have talked about myself here before.  Well, now that I am back in the game for a while, I thought that while I am enjoying the new Siege of Orgrimmar content that I could also run a bit of an "experiment" on the side.  Is is really feasible to level a character entirely through queued activities like dungeons and battlegrounds?  Or would you still be better off out questing in the broader game world?  So I rolled a brand new character and my intention is to level him entirely "through the queue," using only dungeons and battlegrounds.  Obviously I'll have to do a few quests here and there to get to the minimum level to use those features, but my goal is to not quest at all once I can do so.  And to really test the theory, I rolled a pure DPS character, a mage.  No quick queue times by playing as a tank or healer for this guy.  So in the end we'll see if this is truly a better leveling path, or if it is just a "myth" propagated by those who dislike how Blizzard has implemented features like LFD.

02 September 2013

Relationship Status = It's Complicated

So first off a little bit of "business."  I've finally decided what I want to do with the blog moving forward.  My life gets busier by the day (baby #3 arriving within a month) but I don't want to abandon the idea of a blog because dangit, sometimes I just really have something to get off my chest!  Bottom line is I'll probably only be posting here once a week.  I am planning to do it on Monday's, but of course that is always subject to life's little entanglements.  I also can't promise it will always be about MMO's.  I find myself playing MMO's less and less these days.  But I'm not going to rename the blog again just because I can't seem to make up my mind about what I want to play.  I think the concept itself still fits.  I'd like to be playing MMO's, but it just doesn't seem to be in the cards lately, so instead I wander from place to place as the mood suits me.  That having been said, my recent wanderings have brought me back to some old familiar territory.

What was Old is New Again

If you've read my articles on Utopian Chaos (and I hope you have!) you'd know that they were kind enough to facilitate my entry into the Hearthstone beta test.  I won't rehash my impressions of the game here because that isn't really what this post is about.  But needless to say I really enjoy the game in short "bursts" and the game really drove home a point to me about Blizzard as a company, and that is really what this post is about.  Playing Hearthstone has reacquainted me with many of the reasons that Blizzard is so successful regardless of perceived missteps or decisions that many gamers may not agree with.  Hearthstone is a simple game, so much so that it already has attracted a fair degree of criticism from more "hardcore" players who want a more complex experience.  But those players should know by now, that is not what Blizzard is about.  They don't make the most complicated games, or the most mentally taxing games.  They make the most fun and polished games.  And they do it very well.

In order to play the Hearthstone beta, you have to use the new Battle.net launcher, which is itself still in beta and not yet required for players of Blizzard's other games, although I think anyone with a B.net account can download and try it.  So having the launcher I could see my currently inactive World of Warcraft account as well as potentially download the "starter versions" of Starcraft 2 and Diablo 3.  I'm already interested in the Siege of Orgrimmar and have been planning a brief return to Azeroth to see how that plays out (more on that later) so I used the launcher to update my WoW client and also to download the starter version of D3.  Now I'm not sure if this is something Blizzard had in mind when designing the B.net launcher (maybe it was) but I never would have really given D3 a second thought if I couldn't have tried it out for free.  But I did, and after just a couple hours with it, it too reinforced the point that Hearthstone had already made.  Blizzard just makes amazingly fun and polished games.

Dungeon crawlers like D3 aren't my preferred genre of game, but they are good for a quick romp and lots of satisfying death and destruction.  I really enjoyed Torchlight 2 (especially it's much more friendly $20 price point) but after just a brief amount of time with D3 it is obvious where it really puts TL2 to shame.  Now don't get me wrong, TL2 is still a fine game and in many ways is actually "more like Diablo" than D3 itself.  But at the same time, D3 is a much better game in many ways.  Everything about it just oozes with charm, refinement, polish, attention to detail... all the things that Blizzard has become known for providing in its games.  Again this is not to say that TL2 is "sloppy," it isn't.  But when you put the two side by side, the shortcomings in TL2 become glaringly obvious.  And for all the criticism for D3's loot distribution, frankly I found TL2 just as frustrating in this regard.  I can't tell you how many high level drops I couldn't use because the stats were wrong, it was class restricted, or even just didn't fit my current character due to my chosen talent distribution.  So D3 hardly "cornered the market" on the itemization problem.

Put Aside Logic, Do what Feels Right

But the result of all this has been to really drive home my "love/hate" relationship with Blizzard in general.  I haven't really "agreed" with anything they have done as a company since the Cataclysm expansion for WoW.  I absolutely hated that expansion.  I absolutely hated their decision to split Starcraft 2 into three separate games.  And I absolutely hated the inclusion of the real-money auction house in D3.  Basically every major decision involving their three main franchises over the last few years has pissed me off.  After playing Hearthstone and D3 though, I am forced to acknowledge that while I may not like the decisions Blizzard has made, I do still like their games.  Hearthstone has the potential to be their Candy Crush or Angry Birds.  It is just that fun to play and has that "pick up and play" feel that will really appeal to casual gamers.  I can easily see people lining up for the Arena over and over again and buying pack after pack for the chance to crack that Onyxia they really want for their deck.  (Or for the dust to simply craft it.  The ability to craft any specific card is a genius decision in my opinion, and something that any card game without player trading needs to consider).

Which brings me full circle back to World of Warcraft.  I've gone through phases where I have irrationally loved the game, and phases where I've irrationally hated it.  But in all my wanderings one thing has remained true, it is simply the best game at what it does.  The most important aspect of a game to me is that is just has to be fun to play.  You've heard me talk about this a lot here.  A game just has to "feel" right.  WoW does this in a way that no other game I've played can match, and it is just a testament to Blizzard's ability to refine games in a way that other developers try to emulate but can't.  Call it "feel," call it "polish," call it the "it factor," whatever you want.  The bottom line is that WoW has IT and most other games simply do not.  Which is why when patch 5.4 drops, I will once again return to the world of Azeroth to see what Blizzard has in store for us this time around.

Basically I'm not going to let my animosity towards Blizzard for some of their choices I didn't like stop me from playing the games that I do like.  It's silly to hate on WoW just because it is popular, or choose not to play a game just because you don't like a certain aspect of it.  For example if I were to ever buy D3, I'd never touch the RMAH.  As far as I would be concerned, it simply wouldn't exist and I would play the game as if it were not even there.  And in WoW... well let's just say I try and pretend that any content associated with Cataclysm doesn't exist.  I did actually like the old-world revamp.  I just absolutely can't stand any of the 80-85 and associated content.  If Blizzard were to put a token in their upcoming WoW item shop that said "Level your character automatically from 80 to 85," I would buy it.

So quick question, who out there is struggling with Final Fantasy XIV right now?  I have to admit this game wasn't even really on my radar until I saw the folks at Utopian Chaos going ga-ga over it.  For me Final Fantasy has been crap ever since #10.  And I'd like to take a look at it, but you can't even buy it right now!  So any opinions on it?  Interesting at all for a guy who prefers WoW-style MMO's?

19 August 2013

WildStar's WildGamble?

So there hasn't been much in the world of MMO's that has interested me lately, which is the primary reason for the lack of updates.  I've mostly been spending what little free time I have on various digital card games and so I've confined my writing efforts to projects at Utopian Chaos.  But this morning I saw a story that immediately grabbed my attention and demanded a response.  Carbine Studios announced the business model for their upcoming WildStar MMO.  As you know, this is a game I have been following since the moment it was first announced and have been looking forward to it with great anticipation.  So how is Carbine planning to make money off WildStar and how does this affect my attitude towards the game?  Fantastic questions!  Read on.

How a Gamer and His Money are Parted

Suffice to say I was shocked by what Carbine announced.  WildStar is going the "old school" route of a fixed box cost for the game itself ($60 according to this interview with Jeremy Gaffney) plus a mandatory monthly subscription (the standard $15 per month with discounts for multiple month purchases).  In addition to this however, Carbine is offering an "EVE style" alternative in the form of an item called CREDD.  These are like EVE's PLEX items in that they can be purchased with in-game currency and then redeemed for a month's worth of game time.  The "catch" is that they cost $20 to initially purchase.  The expectation is that players with more money than time will purchase CREDD, place them on WildStar's auction house (called the CX) and then other players with a surplus of in-game currency will purchase them in order to essentially play for free.  Carbine sees this as a "win-win" situation for both players as the player pressed for time can now obtain large amounts of in-game currency to purchase the items he does not have the time to acquire, and the other player with large amounts of time and game currency can turn that time and effort into free game time.

When I step back and look at it, I suppose I really shouldn't have been so surprised at the route Carbine took.  Although the "EVE model" was about the furthest thing from my mind, it does make sense that Carbine would go with the mandatory subscription model in some form.  Many things about WildStar's design have been unabashedly "old school," such as 40-man raiding content, and the developers have talked many times about courting that segment of the population that would like to return to what they see as more "traditional" concepts in MMO's.  But at the same time, going the route of the mandatory subscription is a very gusty, very risky move.  Carbine is basically "betting" that there is a large enough population out there that WANTS to see this type of game and payment system and is willing to "vote with their wallets" to support it.  And while there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that many gamers are tiring of "free-to-play" in its various forms, the numbers still speak for themselves.  The ranks of subscription games is very small (basically just World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XI and XIV, and EVE), and the greatest financial successes in gaming all seem to be various interpretations of F2P.  Even WoW itself seems to be inching towards a microtransaction model at some point in the future. 

But is the Vagabond a Fool?

In terms of my personal feelings about the announcement, my initial reaction was very negative.  I thought for sure that they would go with some form of "buy-to-play" system like either Guild Wars 2 or The Secret World had adopted.  I truly believed that the "era" of the subscription had come and gone and that no game would attempt to launch as "subscription only" ever again.  Furthermore, as I've noted before on my blog, subscriptions are something I simply can no longer afford.  At this point in my life, I cannot guarantee enough free time to justify a fixed cost per month to play a game like this.  GW2 is a perfect case in point on this.  I bought the game knowing I would never have to pay another dime for it and I could "stretch" that $60 investment across months and years to justify the cost.  I just started playing it more recently (and I'll be talking about that experience later this week) and that is a concept that works very well for me.  WildStar coming out with a mandatory subscription almost takes it off the list of games I can play entirely.

Additionally, I have become very jaded about games that start out as subscription games and then almost inevitably turn to some form of F2P.  Many of the comments on the articles at Massively, MMORPG, and ZAM reflect this concern.  Just in the past few years, games such as Star Wars: The Old Republic and The Secret World launched as subscription games but very quickly turned to various F2P models, cheapening the investment of initial backers such as myself who invested in the box costs and subscription fees.  Who is to say that WildStar would not end up doing the same?  It almost feels like an effort on the part of the publisher/developer to "milk" their biggest backers for extra cash up front, and then when that runs out, offer the game for free to the masses to "cash in" on the folks who didn't want to subscribe but would play for free and buy a "sparkle pony" here and there.  It may not be Carbine's fault, but it feels like a "Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me" situation.  Many MMO gamers have been burned by F2P conversions and Carbine is asking for a bit of a "leap of faith" here.  I'm not sure how many folks are willing to "jump."  Right now, I'm not.

When it's Ready...

Oh another tidbit that was almost "slid in" with the business model announcement was Gaffney confirming what many were already starting to suspect, that WildStar would not be releasing in 2013.  Based on the beta progress and the fact that Carbine admitted they were still fully revamping key game systems, it was already widely assumed that the 2013 target date would be changed.  Now we know for sure.  Spring 2014 is the new target date.  This doesn't bother me much at all as I would rather see a polished final product than a "rush job."  And with the announced business model, I'm not exactly in a hurry anymore to see the final game.  I still want to believe that WildStar will be a great game and that it could restore my faith and interest in MMO's.  But right now I'm just not feeling it.  Maybe the delay is a good thing in that regard too and they can do something to rekindle my interest between now and then.  Because if it were releasing today, I would have to take a pass.

So as I mentioned, I've been back in GW2 recently.  Since I'm trying to keep my card game stuff separate from my MMO stuff, and I've been mostly playing card games recently, I haven't had much to say here.  But later this week I'll post some impressions of my time back in GW2 and talk about some of the things I think the game does well, and falls very short on.  Thanks for your patience and I hope if you are interested in digital card games, check out the content at Utopian Chaos.  They really are building a great community around the concept of digital card games and I'm very proud to be a part of what they are doing there.

24 July 2013

The Heart of Fear

A while back I talked about how a fear of failure and rejection was a major part of the reason I had isolated myself within the MMO's that I have been playing.  Well, my recent turn towards digital trading card games (dTCG's) has revealed to me that this fear is even deeper than I had first realized.  And as much as I wish I could pinpoint when I started to become so fearful in my interactions with other players, the best thing I can come up with is when I lost my "support network" back in World of Warcraft.  Having a group of close friends to experience content somewhat "sheltered" me from having to put myself out there and interact with a more diverse population.  Once that was removed, I found myself unwilling to "put myself out there" again and instead became more and more withdrawn.  But I discovered recently that it isn't even just about failing or rejection.  I am not a highly competitive person by any means, but all the sudden I am also simply afraid to lose.

The Corruption Runs Deep

I've been dabbling in several dTCG's recently, some of which I've already talked about, others of which I haven't mentioned yet but will probably talk about in my Utopian Chaos column at some point.  But in each of these games, I am keeping almost exclusively to whatever PvE content the game offers and avoiding playing other players whenever possible.  Why?  Because the games aren't fun?  Because my little starter decks are crappy?  No... because I simply don't want to get pummeled by other players.  Why should that matter?  The only way to get better at anything is to practice, especially at the beginning.  No one is an expert at a game right out of the gate.  Well, ok... almost no one.  There will always be the odd "savant" out there, but that's certainly not me.  So why should I care about getting killed at first?  I shouldn't, but I do.  I care so much that I go out of my way to avoid it, and thus ruin any chance at actually improving at any of these games and enjoying them more in the long term.

And you know what's even more sad?  This attitude is starting to creep into the offline single-player games I try to play.  During the recent Steam sale I picked up a handful of titles that were well received and dirt cheap.  I haven't even booted up half of them, or barely started a couple of them.  Why?  Because I don't want to stumble around trying to figure them out at first.  I don't want to "suck" while I try and figure them out.  But who is going to "see" me?  Is there anyone watching while I have to save/restart several times while I try and figure out what the heck I am doing?  Nope, it's just me, myself, and I.  So what in the world is the problem?  I wish I knew, but it is really becoming paralyzing in a sense.  It is ruining my ability to enjoy ANY kind of gaming... MMO, TCG, offline RPG... doesn't matter.  I can't seem to enjoy anything these days because I am just purely afraid of any kind of failure, setback, or obstacle.

Getting Over Oneself

I suppose it may be frustrating to some of you to have to keep reading about my personal issues rather than some juicy gaming gossip, but it's hard to write about games that you can't bring yourself to play anymore... so this is what I have to write about for the time being.  I am hoping to find a way over this little "hump" and get back to enjoying my hobby again.  Actually I am hoping that my involvement with Utopian Chaos is helping me turn the corner on this.  There are a bunch of really great people over there and they have been very accepting of my contributions so far.  It's a good feeling to have after being pretty much "on my own" for such a long time.  Now if only Carbine would fix their random number generator and send me a WildStar beta key!  They announced another stress test coming up this weekend and guess who didn't get invited again?  Yeah... this guy.  At this rate I may break down and try Final Fantasy XIV: ARR when it launches later this year.

Enjoy the rest of your week and look for my column on Utopian Chaos tomorrow!

19 July 2013

To Infinity (Wars) and Beta (Beyond!)

Alright I know I said I'd be directly most of my TCG related content to my new column over at Utopian Chaos but I have two reasons to go ahead and post this one here on my blog.  The first is that I've settled on a theme for the content I'll be posting over at UC, and what I want to talk about today doesn't really fit with that.  It's more of a review/preview type thing, so I thought it would go fine here on the blog.  The second reason is to let you know of a promotion that UC just launched today that I think would appeal to people in my audience who are more on the MMO side of things than they are on the TCG side of things.

You've already heard me talk about HEX and how excited I am for the prospects of it as a card game which attempts to incorporate aspects of an MMO... crafting, group PvE content, etc.  Well if you're curious to see what it's all about, but don't feel like committing any cash to finding out... the good folks running Utopian Chaos have a deal for you.  They just announced that they will be giving away one "Pro Tier" package for access to the game.  This was one of the $250 pledge tiers from their Kickstarter campaign.  Full details of the promotion can be found here.  And while you're there, be sure to check out all their other content.  If you have any interest at all in this "new frontier" of digital card games, UC will have you covered in terms of getting you the info.  With that out of the way then... on to today's topic!

A New Breed of TCG?

I was turned on to Infinity Wars by the folks at UC.  I was there mostly due to my interest in HEX (and somewhat Hearthstone) but IW was not something I had even heard of prior to getting involved with the site.  So soon after, one of their founders hooked me up with a closed beta key and I was able to take this game for a spin.  I've been putzing with it for almost a week now and I feel comfortable enough to share some initial impressions that I have of it.  Now bear in mind that this game is still in closed beta and is a ways off from full release.  That means two things; first that there are going to be bugs, errors, missing content, and other things, and second that anything I talk about is subject to change prior to launch.  With those disclaimers in mind then, let's take a look at IW.

The first thing to note about IW is that it does away with the concept found in most TCG's of each player taking turns and passing "priority" on each action.  At first I was unsure how this concept of "simultaneous turns" would play out in practice.  I thought it would be literally simultaneous and that the game would feel "twitchy" or frantic as a result.  As it turns out though, this is not the case at all.  Both players take their turns at the same time yes, but actions do not occur instantly.  What happens is you decide all the things you want to do on your turn, your opponent does the same, and then the game resolves all those actions based on an alternating priority system.  In other words, on one turn all your actions will resolve first, then on the next turn your opponent will have that "priority."  This leads to some very strategic gameplay as you can try to bluff or predict your opponents actions and try to guess what s/he will do on the board on any given turn.  I wasn't sure I was going to like this concept, but so far I do.

This leads to another major gameplay departure from a lot of other TCG's, the concept of zones and how that affects creatures attacking and blocking.  In most TCG's you have freedom to select when/if a creature of yours attacks, and when/if a creature blocks.  IW's concept of zones automates much of this process.  For the purpose of combat there are two zones, Assault and Defense (there are two other additional zones but those are a somewhat different topic.)  Creatures in the Assault Zone automatically attack each turn, where as creatures in the Defense Zone automatically block.  There is no choosing attackers or choosing blockers, it is all done automatically according to the game rules.  Now you may think this "simplifies" combat, but based on my experience so far, it does nothing of the sort.  Combat tricks, deploying "sneak" blockers or attackers, etc. are all very much a part of the game and go a long way to determining your success.

Take my Money Now!

The third and final aspect of the game I wanted to cover in these initial impressions is the payment model.  As with many games in the dTCG world, the general trend is "free-to-play" with ways to spend real money to buy things as well.  In this IW is pretty similar.  However it should be noted that it is possible to earn cards, booster packs, pre-constructed decks, etc. all with the in-game currency.  I say possible, but it is not going to be ideal for most players.  There is a cap on the amount of in-game currency you can earn in a day.  If you earn up to the cap every day, it will take about a week to accumulate enough currency to purchase a pre-con deck, or you could buy a single booster pack almost every day.  Now I honestly don't know how much time it would take to cap every day.  I've yet to come close, but all I'm doing right now is single-player tutorials and campaign missions to familiarize myself with the game.  That said, a single pack per day or a single deck per week will make for a long, slow process for people looking to avoid spending real money on the game.

The game itself is fun though.  I enjoy the mechanics and how it is a departure from many of the other types of card based games that I am familiar with.  It will certainly remain in my "rotation" as a change of pace game to go to now and again, but I can't see myself committing a significant amount of time or money to it at this time.  If you like card games though, I would definitely try it out.  It is a good game and if it catches your interest, you certainly won't be disappointed to give it a few bucks.  On that topic, folks who are in the beta are able to invite others into it.  So... if IW sounds like fun to you, leave a comment below.  I'll pick one and email you a key to try the game for yourself.

17 July 2013

The Last "Domino?"

News came out recently that venerable king of the MMO heap World of Warcraft would be implementing an in-game item shop in the near future, perhaps as soon as the next major content patch.  It is actually going to be rolled out in Asia first and so far Blizzard is being rather coy in terms of what exactly will be on offer through this shop.  It is assumed that the current selection of pets, mounts, and conveniences will be present so that one no longer has to go outside the game to access these resources.  But now that Blizzard has taken the step of placing items for purchase directly into the game client itself, the possibility now exists for a wide variety of other items to be made available such as experience boosts, reputation boosts, or even gear.  And as noted, the version rolled out on the Asian servers will include some kind of XP buff for purchase.  So what does this mean for the future of WoW?  Let's engage in a little wild speculation.

Option A:  The Beginning of Free-to-Play

The first, and perhaps most logical, conclusion that presents itself is that this is the first step in an eventual "free-to-play" conversion for WoW.  This would obviously send shockwaves throughout the entire MMO industry and almost certainly spell the end of mandatory subscriptions as a payment model.  Now on this point, I've said before on this blog that F2P is not going to likely create any new customers for a game like WoW because by this point pretty much everyone who has wanted to try it has already done so at this point.  I still maintain that as true.  But there is another side to that point that I think Blizzard may be well aware of.  At this point in its life, there are far more former WoW players than there are current WoW players.  How many of those former players could be enticed back, even on a "part time" basis by the game dropping its subscription?  And how many of those former players would be tempted to buy a pet or two, or a snappy new flying mount, or a cool piece of cosmetic gear while they are around?  I think there is a huge potential for this, and I think Blizzard is sensing it too.  And let's be blunt... every minute a player would spend in WoW is a minute they won't be spending in one of WoW's competitors, which also has to figure in Blizzard's thinking.

Every new expansion creates a flurry of new interest in the game.  Sub numbers typically pick up early in an expansion, peak, and then drop off towards the end.  But this "cycle" has been accelerating, especially with the last two expansions.  The sub decline for Cataclysm happened much sooner, and I am guessing that the same will hold true after Pandaria.  And so while Blizzard continues to make good on "box sales" for each expansion, their ability to retain players across the "life" of an expansion is getting worse and worse.  A switch to F2P (or I suppose more likely "buy-to-play" actually) could help solve that problem and increase revenue over the entire cycle of each expansion.  Players wouldn't feel compelled to rush through all the content of an expansion and then drop their subs when they run out of things to do.  They could approach the expansion at their own pace, and Blizzard could concentrate on distributing the "incentives" in such a way as to encourage people to keep dropping in from time to time. 

Option B:  The Sucking Sound from your Wallet

This is worse than a Steam sale!

The second possibility is that Blizzard is going to start just straight "double dipping."  They are going to maintain their mandatory subscription and then in addition begin to offer more and more items for purchase within the game itself.  Unfortunately there is precedent for this line of thinking as well.  Ever since Blizzard first started offering account services, and then later pets and mounts, for cash it has already amounted to a certain level of "double dipping."  Some players protested from the outset, especially when pets and mounts became involved.  But because the "shop" was external from the game itself, it "felt" less obtrusive than if it were actually in the game.  So in actuality, Blizzard has already been doing this for quite some time.  The only difference is that now, they are placing the interface within the actual game and removing that sort of "barrier" that created an "out of sight, out of mind" scenario for those who wanted to believe that Blizzard was not already engaging in "double dipping."

The other fact of the matter on this point is that Blizzard is still Blizzard and WoW is still WoW.  What I mean by that is Blizzard may simply think that by and large players will continue to pay their subs and now buy items from an in-game store.  Where else are players going to go?  Where is the competition?  People have been trying to knock WoW off the mountain top for years now and no one has succeeded.  Blizzard may just be saying, "We're leaving money on the table by not doing a cash shop.  People will use it.  Just do it."  And so a cash shop is what we get.  Now perhaps this will end up being Blizzard's "Xbox One Moment" where the customers finally get up on their hind legs and say, "No!  We aren't going to use it!" and they end up having to do some backtracking or reformulation of their concept.  But I think it is very possible that the thinking at Blizzard is precisely that players will tolerate it and that they are losing potential profits by not incorporating an in-game shop. 

The Titan in the Room

Another factor to bear in mind here is the status of Project Titan.  With Titan having been essentially scrapped and restarted from scratch, WoW is going to have to carry the torch for Blizzard for at least a few more years.  Now I don't know which of the situations I posed above is made more likely by this fact, but it is something that has to be kept in mind.  It may be that Blizzard was looking for a way to "wind down" WoW but now it has to be kept going and so steps are going to be taken to ensure that WoW stays as profitable as possible for as long as possible.  One could argue that it was (and still is) inevitable that WoW would become F2P at some point.  But the fate of Titan and the emergence of this item shop makes that a more relevant question than ever before. 

My thoughts?  I think Blizzard is going to "hold out" and keep the subscription running as long as they can possibly maintain it.  They will go F2P (most likely B2P) at some point, and I can't guess when exactly that will be, because I don't think they have a "target date" for it.  I think they are going to roll out as many supplemental income streams as possible, bring in as much money from as many sources as possible, and only cut the strings on the subscription when it reaches the point where requiring the sub is hurting their profitability.  Now that day may come the day after they roll out the item shop in full, or that day may come several years from now when they are finally ready to unleash Titan.  It really depends on how the market plays out and how WoW players react to the various things they are presented with in the item shop. 

Would I play F2P WoW?  Almost certainly.  They would have to adopt some pretty draconian non-subscriber restrictions in order to "prevent" me from coming back to the game.  I think I am far from alone in that category, and I think that is why ultimately Blizzard will give a lot of serious thought to some form of F2P conversion.  But that day won't be today, or tomorrow, or probably even this year... unless as I said, this item shop creates a sort of "Xbox One" type reaction from their players.  Time will tell, but it would seem that the last major "domino" in the old subscription regime has started to tumble.

15 July 2013

Content Entitlement

There is a rather "passionate" debate going on in the official HEX forums right now regarding exclusive items and who should be able to get them, and whether certain choices made in the PvE portion of the game should bar you from accessing certain items as well.  I am not going to "rehash" the entire debate here, nor am I going to comment on it directly.  Instead I use it as a starting point for a discussion of the issue of entitlement in broader terms and how I believe this has affected the development of games within the MMO genre.

Entitled to History

When I began playing MMO's it was pretty much accepted and understood that there were pieces of content that the average player simply would not be able to access.  This is not a normative judgement on whether this was a good thing or not, it is simply a statement of fact.  And most players accepted that fact.  They understood that they would not see every raid, not claim every item, not conquer every monster.  Now I'm not sure which changed first.  Did the games start to change and make it more and more possible to actually do and see and obtain everything?  Or did player's expectation change and they began to object to not being able to do and see and obtain everything?  On that I'm not sure, but regardless of whether the "chicken" or the "egg" came first, the result was the same.  "Accessibility" became the buzzword for MMO development.

The result is that now players are almost offended when they are "told" by a game  that there is something they cannot do.  The new expectation is that nothing will be placed outside your reach, and that depending on the game, it may not even require a significant amount of effort to obtain or access all that you desire.  But are these truly the kinds of games that we want?  Ones in which the effort to obtain rewards is so reduced that everyone can do everything?  Again I am unsure.  On the one hand, we are talking about entertainment.  We are talking about things people do for fun.  Hobbies should not be frustrating experiences where obstacles are constantly placed in our way to achieving our goals...............

........ or should they?  There is another point of view that would suggest that it is precisely the obstacles and impairments that are placed in our path that make the rewards worthwhile.  The source of the entertainment itself is in overcoming the obstacles, breaking down the barriers, and still achieving our goals.  How cool is it to have a Thunderfury, Blessed Blade of the Windseeker when every other player has one too?  How meaningful is it to say you have explored the entire world when every other player can easily do so from the back of their cheap and easy flying mount?  How rewarding is it to craft a Cloak of Transcendent Awesomeness (ok, I made that one up) when the auction house is flooded with a thousand ones just like it?  Both are valid points of view, because in the final analysis, it is impossible to "enforce" a single idea of what is fun, or entertaining, or rewarding.

No Money?  Mo Problems.

So what are game developers to do?  As I have noted many times on this blog, gaming is a business, and like any other business, the bottom line is to make money, and that is what developers are going to do.  They are going to create games and content that they think will make them the most money.  And right now, most developers who "run the numbers" on this question have decided that "accessibility" is the winner.  Make everything easy to get and you please the largest portion of the population.  Yes there will always be a vocal contingent that complains, but pleasing them would hurt the bottom line. 

Case in point:  A major change in crafting to as-yet-unreleased in the U.S. sandbox darling ArcheAge.  To quickly summarize, the game's crafting system was changed drastically from a "hardcore" model involving item deterioration and other factors to a much simpler system.  One of the developers even flat out stated, "Only hardcore crafters liked the old system, so we changed it."  They ran the numbers and the numbers told them that pleasing the minority was hurting their bottom line, so they changed the system.  This is why MMO's today are more apt to look like World of Warcraft than they are say, Star Wars Galaxies.  I hate to sound so jaded, especially now in the "Age of Kickstarter" where folks like Chris Roberts and Richard Garriott are appealing directly to players to try and get games made that are more in line with their creative visions and not profit margins (still not sure how much of the blame Garriott deserves for Tabula Rasa).  But the fact remains that for the vast majority of games and developers, the almighty dollar rules the day, and the decisions they make will always be based on that.

I wanted to end with a quick "Thank You" and shout out to the folks at Utopian Chaos.  They are putting together what they hope to be a "one stop shop" for all things related to digital trading card game news and information and they graciously have invited me to be a small part of that project.  So for now I'll be doing some columns for them and as such I'll probably keep the TCG related stuff to a minimum here on the blog so I can direct my efforts on those topics to those columns.  I hope you'll take a minute to check out their site and all the other stuff they have cooking there.

12 July 2013

Argh! My Wallet! (Steam Summer Sale)

Yes it's that time of year that makes me regret that I have "bought in" to this particular system.  I both love Steam and I hate it.  I love it for its convenience, the single account that I can use to download games to any machine I happen to be playing on, and the sales.  I hate it because it IS still DRM, even if it feels more polite... and the sales.  I'm learning the most important lesson about Steam... never buy anything unless it is on sale, because it will come up for sale eventually.  Right now I'm particularly miffed over seeing Borderlands 2 on sale for $10, when I bought it for $60.  But yeah... that is Rule #1 for Steam.  Just be patient.  As another case in point, Bioshock Infinite is up for $30 right now as a part of the infamous Steam Summer Sale.

So yes it is that time again.  While Steam runs sales on a daily and weekly basis, this one week every summer is of particular significance.  Tons of games get the sale treatment, and not just indie titles or last years hits.  As I already mentioned, Bioshock Infinite is getting the sale treatment, and Skyrim was part of the first 8-hour "flash sale."  I passed on that one, but the second flash sale had a little gem that I couldn't resist picking up... Bastion for a mere $2.50.  I guess the best way to describe it would be a highly stylized Diablo with a bit more emphasis on storytelling than on loot collection. 

I'm not so much in the market for the "latest and greatest" these days, which is why a cheap little romp like Bastion appeals more to me than an epic, big budget title like Bioshock.  My gaming PC is almost three years old and unless I win the lottery tomorrow, I will not have the discretionary income to replace it anytime soon.  And even when I do, I'm more likely to buy a slimmed down desktop and a tablet than I am another "top of the line" gaming rig.  So I need to learn how to game smarter and game cheaper.  No more new releases.  No more big budget blockbusters.  No more top of the line machines.  I spent the last ten years almost trying to play that "game," and I came out a loser... not to mention poorer.

But here I am talking about how to save money, all while spending money.  And that's the ultimate irony of the Steam Summer Sale.  Oh well, back to filling my catalog with cheap goodness.  What deals do you have your eyes open for this week?